PM Abiy risks exacerbating ethnic divides in Ethiopia with Tigray conflict

Ethiopian refugees, fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, 13 November 2020.
Ethiopian refugees, fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, cross the border into Hamdayet, Sudan, 13 November 2020. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is effectively waging war against the Tigrayan people, as he leads a military campaign against the leadership of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), and the country descends further into civil war, according to experts and commentators. 


Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy said Ethiopia’s military operations in Tigray were started “due to the persistent and dangerous illegality of a criminal clique within TPLF”. 

In a television address last week, he said the federal government had hoped that “reasonable and moderate” forces within the TPLF could bring an end to the brinkmanship that eventually led them to intervene militarily. 

However, the TPLF are ingrained within the fabric of Tigrayan society, and action by Ethiopian security forces is likely to be perceived as attack on the whole ethnic group. 

“To try to separate and create a wedge between the Tigrayan people and the TPLF leadership, in my view, is a very futile effort,” said political analyst Yohannes Woldemariam at the University of Colorado. 

“It’s a very primordial ethnic affiliation,” Yohannes told RFI's Africa Calling podcast, describing how Tigrayans consider the TPLF almost as kin and view Abiy as an outsider. “The Tigrayan people are feeling like they’re being persecuted because they’re Tigrayan."

Growing divisions

The TPLF has been at odds with Abiy for some time. In November 2019, it refused to join the Prosperity Party, the successor to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which brought together the country’s regions in an ethnic, federalist system. 

In reality, the EPRDF was seen by many as controlled by the TPLF, who represent a minority ethnic group who make up about 6 percent of Ethiopia’s diverse population. 

In September, the Tigray region held elections that were not sanctioned by the federal government, with regional authorities concerned about Addis Ababa’s decision to postpone polls expected in August 2020 due to fears over the coronavirus pandemic.

Ethiopia's parliament then decided to sever relations with the regional authorities in reaction to the wildcat elections.

Abiy’s justified his decision to launch a military campaign against Tigray’s leaders at the start of November, saying the TPLF had ordered attacks against federal soldiers based in the region. The TPLF has denied involvement in the attack on Ethiopian troops. 

“They have fears of every minority group,” said Befeqadu Hailu, an Ethiopian writer and activist in Addis Ababa. 

“It’s the people of Tigray who are disconnected from the world. Phone lines and internet are cut. It isn't cut for the leaders because they are using VSAT. If there are people who are starving, it is the people of Tigray.” 

Ethiopia has been subjected to an almost complete information blackout since the start of the conflict, with restrictions on journalists and reporting. Most of the information about the fighting is provided by the government and TPLF, with independent sources few and far between.

Humanitarian fallout  

“There are many thousands of people who are now fleeing the country to refugee camps in Sudan – these are the people of Tigray,” said Befeqadu. “So eventually, the ultimate price will be paid by the people.” 

Some 36,000 people have fled from Tigray, seeking safety in Sudan, according to the UN refugee agency.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Wednesday warned of the “immense suffering” triggered by the fighting. The ICRC described how hospitals and healthcare facilities near areas with active fighting urgently need supplies and support. 

Both sides claimed various victories in the conflict this week, referring to supposed advances on the regional capital Mekelle or successes in driving back Ethiopian forces. 

“The Prosperity Party is, I think, gambling on this war now,” said Yohannes, who was born in Eritrea and raised in Ethiopia. “We’re talking about the politics of survival here, who’s going to survive, I really think so. It’s a very serious situation.” 

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